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5.6: Philosophers and Knowledge of the Forms

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    See 472a-480a. When asked how it is possible for the just city they have been describing to come into being, Socrates answers that it is not possible unless the rulers become “philosophers” (literally, lovers of wisdom). But what are philosophers? People who are “ready and willing to taste every kind of learning” and are “insatiable for it”; people who are “lovers of seeing the truth”; and above all, people who “are passionately devoted to and love the things with which knowledge deals,” the “forms.” What are these things seen and embraced by the philosophers, these forms? Socrates encourages us to consider one of them, “the beautiful itself.” Unlike “the many beautiful things” (this particular person, that particular song, etc.), which, depending upon one’s point of view, appear in some respects to be beautiful and yet in other respects ugly – or in fancy language, “partake in both being and not being” with respect to beauty – the beautiful itself “is” beautiful “completely.” People who fail to see and embrace the form of the beautiful may think they know what they are talking about when they say that this person is beautiful or that song is beautiful, but they have mere “belief”; only the person who grasps the form, who truly understands the nature of beauty, has “knowledge.” This is an early statement of a position that philosophers have come to call realism about universals. A modern day proponent of this view might explain it this way: Certain things exist, “universals” such as what it is to be beautiful, what it is to be green, what it is to be three in number, or what it is to be a knife. These things are capable, typically, of having “particular instances,” such as this beautiful face, that green leaf, those three pebbles, or the knife on the table, and it is in virtue of sharing a universal feature that particulars are correctly said to be similar. (Not that every universal must have instances: e.g., what it is to be a square circle, or what it is to be nonexistent.) Universals exist independent of their instances; what it is to be a dinosaur, for example, still exists even though dinosaurs don’t. Universals also exist independent of our minds; what it is to be a dinosaur existed before human beings ever imagined dinosaurs and will continue to exist should we ever cease to think about them. Finally, universals are the sort of thing that can be known, and to know such a thing is to understand the essence of an aspect of reality. With this topic we reach the midpoint of the Republic.

    • What would be an example of something you “believe” but don’t “know” (in Socrates’ sense of these terms)?

    • Suppose someone were to object that there are no such things as forms in Socrates’ sense of the term; there are of course words and phrases such as “beautiful,” “green,” “three in number,” “knife,” and “just,” but these are merely labels of our devising, manmade things that have no existence outside of the community of English speakers. How might Socratesreply?

    • Suppose someone were to object that there are no such things as forms in Socrates’ sense of the term; there are of course general concepts, thoughts in the mind, such as beauty, greenness, the number three, the concept of a knife, and the concept of justice, but these, being thoughts in the mind, have no existence outside the mind. How might Socrates reply?

    • For things that depend upon the mind in order to exist, either because they are themselves mental (thoughts, desires, fears, etc.) or because they result from our mental activity (jokes, loaves of bread, baseball games), could the forms of these things exist eternally, independent of our minds? Is there the form of a baseball game? If so, what happens when the rules of the game change? Must there be a different form corresponding to the different sets of rules? Did the form of a baseball game exist before the game was invented?

    • Is it not a truism that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”? If so, how can there be a form of beauty, independent of our minds, with a nature that is timelessly fixed? (Here is one way this is conceivable: Suppose the form of beauty were the sort of thing philosophers call a relation. You might consider, by comparison, what it is to be a mother, what it is to be taller, or what it is to be underneath. These forms each relate two or more things. The motherhood relation is between a woman and one or more of her children. The taller relation is between two or more vertical objects. The underneath relation is between two or more objects set atop one another. Might beauty not also be some sort of relation, a response or interaction of a certain sort, between persons on the one hand and things perceived or imagined on the other? If so, then there would be no contradiction between there being a timeless nature to beauty on the one hand, and people disagreeing about what things are beautiful on the other. For just as a woman may be mother to one person but not to another, something may be beautiful to one person but not to another. The things being related change, but the relation itself remains unchanged.)

    This page titled 5.6: Philosophers and Knowledge of the Forms is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Douglas Drabkin.

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